Since the COVID-19 pandemic, 69% of museums who responded to MANY’s COVID-19 impact surveys located in the Southern Tier reported a loss in public funding and that they were reconsidering their visitor experience (MANY COVID-19 Impact Report Part 1). Facing staff layoffs and significant cuts to earned revenue, the Discovery Center and the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton are discussing affiliating to create a more sustainable organization and to better serve their community.
The Roberson Museum and Science Center was founded in 1934 and focuses on art, local history, science and natural history. Contemporary exhibition space was added in the 1960s and 1980s to include a planetarium.
Inside the Roberson’s NatureTrek exhibition which opened in February 2018
The Discovery Center is a 36 year old 22,500 square foot children’s museum with forty interactive exhibits inside and outside, including its award-winning Story Garden.
Roberson and Discovery Center Board Presidents initially spoke with each other over Zoom to learn more about their museum’s finances, and share their thoughts about nonprofits in the current landscape. “Despite a tight knit community, our boards did not know each other,” said Discovery Center Executive Director Jessie Stone He. “They had to learn about the inner workings of each organization...financial positions, staffing, and programming.” The New York Council on Nonprofits was contracted by the museums to facilitate the discussions that will include affiliation models, governance, financials, human resources, real estate, insurances, and strategic communication. The museums then created a volunteer task force. “We have four trustees from each organization and each Executive Director that is meeting weekly and reviewing an agenda that has been set up by NYCON,” said Michael Grasso, Executive Director of the Roberson Museum and Science Center. “Each week the task force does the due diligence on behalf of each board on finances, personnel, governance, and what that would like when we reach a final decision.” Representatives from the task force will make final recommendations to both boards and then the boards will vote on whether to move forward with that recommendation.
Affiliation Discussion Timeline
Weighing the Benefits
The opportunity to expand current audience demographics is an important benefit for both museums. “The Discovery Center has a maximum age and if we can keep families engaged essentially for their entire lives...from toddler to senior citizen, that significantly benefits the community,” said Grasso. The Discovery Center’s key demographics are toddler up to 12 year olds and Roberson has school programming for pre-k through grade 12, but most of their admissions outside of school groups are 3rd and 4th grade and older. “Part of these affiliation discussions is how can we create a bridge between these two institutions so there’s a continuum of museum lovers,” said Grasso.
The consolidation of services to reduce operational costs would be another benefit. This would require the Discovery Center to move to Roberson’s campus. The push for the consolidation of services would help make the vision of a multi-generational, sustainable, and accessible museum a reality.
“Roberson has a very long history in terms of museums in Upstate NY,” said Grasso. “We were founded in 1954 as a historic house and since then we’ve grown by tens of thousands of square feet in order to incorporate classrooms, large galleries, performance spaces, and more. Roberson is accustomed to evolution. It’s just part of what we have done for the last sixty years in order to meet the needs of the community.”
For the Discovery Center, this potential move could provide greater visibility and increased access for visitors who rely on public transportation. Roberson Museum is located on Front Street, on the main bus routes, and within walking distance to downtown Binghamton. “The Discovery Center is maybe a seven minute drive from the Roberson,” said Stone He. “But it is that much further from the downtown and we are not on a frequent bus route which limits access to our site. It’s one of the things we have received consistent feedback about from local funders on our grant proposals. Funders tell us that we have a great proposal that focuses on providing access to low income families but ask how we are going to get them here.”
The Discovery Center would transfer some of its existing exhibitions and also create new ones to meet the current needs of the community. “It’s an opportunity to have a fully updated space but honoring the traditional exhibitions that the community knows,” said Stone He.
Binghamton’s four major foundations and the local United Way are supporting the study by NYCON regarding the possibility of an affiliation between these two museums. “We’ve been in conversations with our local foundations from the start,” said Grasso. “NYCON is fully funded to support this conversation.” Grasso commented there has been a growing commitment across the community, especially the foundations, for any of the nonprofits to explore affiliations. “They’re looking at their role in ensuring the longevity of this community and ensuring a healthy community that has cultural resources...and nonprofits that are supporting the needs of the community.” Foundations are in strong support for more of these affiliation explorations to help strengthen nonprofits so that they can better serve the community.
“Many of these foundations have a uniform grant application and they always ask about duplication of services indicating that organizations should be striving to collaborate and support each other,” said Stone He.
Binghamton’s foundations support affiliation discussions because it will allow more funding to a single organization to create a greater impact. “Private foundations are feeling the pressure,” said Grasso. “They want to support everyone but funding is limited.” In a statement to the Binghamton Homepage on September 14, The Community Foundation for South Central New York Executive Director Diane Brown commented that nonprofits need to think differently in an era of shrinking population and fewer large corporate givers. “If you’ve got a thoughtful, careful board of directors, and I think both [Discovery Center and Roberson] do, and you’re sitting down with a similar organization as yours to discuss the possibility of some sort of affiliation, I think they’re doing exactly the right thing given the current atmosphere,” said Brown.
The task force is also meeting with elective representatives. “The Discovery Center is located in a city park, so one of the first stakeholders we contacted was the city,” said Stone He. “We are working to make sure our local government is fully aware of what we’re doing as we move forward.”
“It isn’t a small group of people that are involved in this process,” said Grasso. “We are making sure that we are reaching out to the community and that the community has the opportunity to give feedback and understands why these discussions are happening. These discussions will continue on until we get to a point where we are absolutely certain that an affiliation is the right thing or not the right thing to do.” The museums launched a website for the public that includes a discussion timeline. The website provides more transparency on what exactly is happening, the methods being used, why these talks began, and how an affiliation can meet current community needs.
Sustainability for the Future
“The big overarching word that we keep coming back to is sustainability,” said Stone He. “We want to make sure that both of these organizations are in good shape in twenty years and that they can provide a real benefit to the community.” Stone He and Grasso commented that Binghamton’s population has decreased, private foundations have limited funding sources, and both museums are trying to be reflective of their community as it changes. “We don’t want to be struggling with some of the issues that many nonprofits unfortunately struggle with including staff turnover and cuts to programming,” said Stone He. “The reality is that one larger organization can have a broader impact on the community and economic development.”
Looking Towards the Future
Grasso and Stone He agree that the ideal outcome for both organizations is that both of their museums missions are able to continue into the future and become a destination in the region. “One of the vision statements for Roberson has a desire to be internationally recognized for the quality of our exhibits and I think that incorporating the Discovery Center’s skills and exhibitions is a phenomenal way to realize that vision,” said Grasso.
“We’re excited to hear feedback from the community. We’re excited to start putting together a proposal for what this could look like and what the benefits are, not just to our organizations but to the community as a whole,” said Grasso. “We’re excited to show the community what we think is going to be a game changer for this region and we look forward to their response to that.”
Update: On September 25, MANY received an email informing us that Jessie Stone He will be leaving the Discovery Center and weekly affiliation discussions have been temporarily put on hold.